Two years ago, Jay Dillon and his wife, Rachael, were swimming in Big Wave Bay in Hong Kong and noticed a lot of plastic floating around them.
The Twin Cities native had just moved to Asia to monitor quality control at a factory in China for the patio furniture he sells at Yardbird in St. Louis Park.
“I was about to put in a big order with our resin wicker supplier,” Dillon said. “I said, ‘Wait a second, I’m buying a lot of plastic and other people are starting to crack this thing. Let me try to figure it out as well.’ ”
With that, Dillon began a journey through the shifting dynamics of the recycling industry just as consumers are becoming more aware of the scope of ocean pollution and the damage it is causing. His goal: to build patio furniture from the plastic waste that has been dumped onto ocean beaches.
Today, Yardbird is one of the first furniture sellers in the country to do it. About half of the plastic used in six wicker sets at the retailer comes from ocean beaches. The rest is new, or virgin, plastic.
Dillon, 33, learned that 5 trillion pieces of plastic inhabit the ocean, including one whirling mass twice the size of Texas, but scientists and environmentalists believe that it’s easier and less expensive to harvest the plastic from beaches rather than the water. Yardbird and other companies are using plastic recycled from ocean beaches, also known as ocean-intercepted plastic or ocean-bound plastic.
His business partner and dad, Bob Dillon, was initially skeptical of his son’s environmentalism. “I’m in charge of finances, watching the books,” he said. “Let’s keep our eye on the ball and not look right or left.”
Indeed, Jay didn’t tell his father about his initial trips to the Philippines, where he asked their main supplier to start buying plastic from islands where refuse is left on the beach.
“In the Philippines you see people bringing their garbage out and dumping it onto the beaches because there is no waste-management system where a truck comes by a couple of times a week,” he said. “What does come every day is high tide. That’s their waste-management system.”
The plastic is collected by locals who are paid nominal amounts. Then it is chopped up, washed and pelletized. In the wicker factory in China, dyes and anti-fading additives are mixed in before it is melted and extruded into wicker strips.
While plastic wicker outdoor furniture represents the majority of outdoor furniture sales, it’s the heavy, plastic furniture made from recycled milk jugs that more consumers know, also known as #2 high-density polyethylene.
Minnesota companies By the Yard in Jordan, Loll Designs in Duluth and 360 Five Designs in New Prague produce outdoor furniture from recycled plastic. Millions of bottles have been recycled to make the furniture. It takes about 50 to 70 plastic bottles to make one chair, for example, said Nina Ribar, marketing manager at By the Yard.
Dillon said he chose ocean-intercepted plastic over domestic recycled plastic, although both benefit the environment. A water bottle thrown away in Minneapolis has a higher chance of being recycled or put in a landfill than one in the Philippines, he said.
Some outdoor furniture made from recycled plastic can be more expensive than similar choices, but Yardbird found that ocean-bound plastic costs the same as virgin plastic. That’s a big advantage because consumers are usually price sensitive when buying products with recycled materials.
“Consumers make decisions based on price, quality and performance,” said Wayne Gjerde, recycling market development coordinator at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. “First, it has to be a good product. Most won’t buy something just because it has recycled materials. If it does, that’s a cherry on top.”
Will Nagle of Apple Valley checked out By the Yard furniture at the Minneapolis Home & Garden show last month. “The green factor isn’t a primary reason to buy for us,” he said. “The recycling is a pat on the back.”
Joacim Trunk of Chaska, who also shopped for patio furniture at the Home & Garden Show, liked the upscale look of Yardbird’s collection but didn’t know it was partly made from recycled plastic. “Ocean-collected plastic — that could be a tipping point for us,” Trunk said. “It’s priced fairly good for the quality and design.”
The Dillons started designing and manufacturing their own line of patio furniture in 2016 but didn’t include the recycled ocean plastic until this year. He bought 30,000 pounds of ocean-intercepted plastic this year. Next year he’s aiming for 100,000 pounds. “The opportunity was ripe for us because patio furniture is so plastic-heavy,” Bob Dillon said.
There’s about 25 to 60 pounds of recycled ocean plastic in a Yardbird wicker patio set.
Nina Bellucci Butler, CEO of More Recycling in North Carolina, said that a consumer product with a heavy amount of recycled plastic represents a more significant potential reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Adidas recently sold its 1 millionth pair of shoes made partly with recycled plastic, but a patio set uses more plastic than a pair of shoes.
Besides Yardbird and Adidas, national and international companies are also starting to use plastics recovered from the ocean in products or packaging. Dell, Procter & Gamble, Ecolever, H&M, Trek Bikes, Herman Miller and General Motors have started incorporating ocean plastic.
The Dillons say they are aware that shipping plastic from factories in China creates a heavier carbon footprint than if it were made in the U.S., but woven wicker resin is the bestselling patio material and nearly all of it is manufactured overseas. Yardbird uses 50 percent recycled materials in its packing materials, partnered with CarbonFund.org to offset container freight pollution and other shipping, and reduced its electrical use and business travel.
Environmentalists say that retailers need to make consumers aware of recycling when they shop. “Without demand for recycled plastic, value placed on post consumer resin for its CO2 savings, it will be increasingly difficult to prevent material from becoming litter and marine debris,” Butler said.
As demand for recycled plastic grows, its price may fall. And for now, the amount of recycled plastic coming from beaches is less than 1 percent of the recycled plastic sold in the U.S. Jay Dillon said Yardbird’s efforts are small compared to the opportunity and challenge.
“We’re not just wringing our hands that there is an island of plastic floating on the ocean,” he said. “We’re creating a solution. It’s a start.”